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What Impact Will Homebuyer Tax Credit Extension Have on Housing Industry?

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By John Spence

homebuyer_1104RISMEDIA, November 4, 2009—(MCT)—Congress is a step closer to extending the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit and offering a new credit to other types of buyers, but some analysts are downplaying the controversial stimulus’ effect on the housing market. 

In a recent interview, Fox-Pitt Kelton analyst Robert Stevenson said the Senate’s proposal for extending the $8,000 tax credit for new homebuyers will have a “limited impact” on home sales.

A Senate committee reached a deal last week to extend the $8,000 tax credit and offer a smaller $6,500 credit for some existing homeowners. The main pitfall of the proposal is that it only pushes back the expiration of the tax credit to the end of April, Stevenson said. It is currently set to go away on Dec. 1. Stevenson said he’s skeptical the tax credit will drive activity during the slower winter months. The prime selling season for the housing market kicks off in the spring and tends to run through the warmer months. “Of course, Congress could come back and extend it again,” the analyst said. “When the next selling season starts, the housing market will depend on the state of the economy and mortgage rates, rather than tax credits.” 

The $6,500 credit for some repeat homebuyers would let more buyers participate albeit at a lower level, “but a lot of those people are effectively trapped in their current homes,” Stevenson said. 

From their peak in 2006, U.S. home prices have fallen about 30% through the end of August 2009 during the housing downturn, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index. More Americans are falling behind on their mortgage payments or losing their homes in the recession as job losses pile up. Rising foreclosures are another key worry. Yet hopes that a recovery is in place were fueled by a report showing the fourth straight month of rising home prices. Some attributed the tentative rebound to buyers rushing to cash in on the expiring $8,000 tax credit. The push to extend and expand the credit has been led by home builders, Realtors and other groups connected to the housing market. 

“Failure to act now could derail the fragile housing recovery even before it has time to take root,” said Jerry Howard, president of the National Association of Home Builders, in a statement urging Congress to stretch the tax credit. “The consequences would be devastating for both housing and the economy.” Howard said the tax credit has already helped create nearly 200,000 jobs, drive home sales, stem foreclosures and stabilize prices. Homebuilder stocks were up sharply in the wake of the news on the Senate compromise. Still, some economists say the incentive’s impact is overblown. 

“I am not applying the recent home-price rebound to the tax credit,” said Cameron Findlay, chief economist at LendingTree, in a recent interview. “I don’t think the tax credit makes as big an impact as people make it out to be, although it certainly motivates first-time buyers,” he said. “If it expires, I don’t think it would shake the housing market as much as some have predicted.” 

The compromise on extending the tax credit doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, and the proposal still face votes in Congress. One potential snag is a recent government report that uncovered fraud and abuse associated with the tax credit. Thousands of ineligible taxpayers have received millions of dollars under the program, according to the report. 

Stephen East, an analyst at Pali Research, said the proposed new $6,500 credit would likely have some impact on the lower-end of the move-up market. “In essence, this could slowly start to prime the pump,” East forecast. “That said, we remain wary that any measurable impact will be seen until after the holidays and investors need to reconcile their expectations to that.” 

(c) 2009, MarketWatch.com Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. 

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